NATO and Its Limits in the Asia-Pacific

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 14

A NATO delegation headed by the Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, General Knud Bartels, took active part in the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore from May 31 to June 2. General Bartels discussed regional security with counterparts from Asian countries including General Shigeru Iwasaki, Chief of the Joint Staff of Japan’s Self Defense Force and Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo, Deputy Chief of General Staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in which they reportedly had an open discussion on the security situation in Central, South and Northeast Asia (, June 2; China Military Online, June 3). NATO’s engagement comes at a propitious time. Japan has lobbied NATO to increase its engagement in Asia to act as a counterweight to China’s rise. As a NATO partner, Japan has been a generous contributor to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. China seems to be realizing that it needs to engage NATO over Afghanistan, which is crucial for the stability of its own borders. At the same time, China remains wary of NATO as a tool of U.S. power and is opposed to a NATO role in Northeast Asia. Beijing’s fears, however, may be assuaged by NATO’s minimal commitment to the region and the seeming hollowness of the alliance’s values as a guide for policy in East Asia

In mid-April, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen visited Tokyo, where, on April 15, he and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed a joint political declaration between Japan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (, April 15). It was the first time that NATO and Japan released a joint document and confirmed that they share common values. Japan is one of NATO’s “partners across the globe” (, March 19, 2012) [1]. Japan’s support to NATO has included assistance in the Balkans, anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. After the signing of the document, the Secretary General gave a speech at the Japan National Press Club where he took questions (, April 22). During the Secretary General’s trip he met with Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fumio Kishida, Defense Minister, Itsunori Onodera and Chairman of the Japanese Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, Katsuyuki Kawai and had discussions with Diet members related mostly to security issues (Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April 9). 

The long-anticipated visit was overshadowed in the news cycle by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement in a press conference in Tokyo that the United States was “open to negotiation” with North Korea (BBC, April 15; Guardian, April 15, New York Times, April 15). Aung San Suu Kyi also was in town for a separate meeting, crowding the news cycle. Secretary Kerry spoke on the same day as Rasmussen and news coverage of the Secretary General’s visit was wanting. Shortly before arriving in Tokyo, Kerry announced in Beijing a desire to have a special relationship with China (U.S. Department of State, April 13). The United States only has two other special relationships: one with Israel, the other with the UK. Perhaps this was not the message the Japanese government had envisioned. Although largely ignored by the international media, Secretary General Rasmussen’s visit had not escaped the Chinese press. Xinhua reported “Japan, NATO agree to boost security cooperation” (Xinhua, April 15). In the People’s Daily, an editorial on how “Values Diplomacy Can Never Have Good Results” criticized the NATO-Japan discussions and conflated Japan’s military past with what the writer described as Prime Minister Abe’s “values strategy” (People’s Daily, April 17). 

NATO and Japan 

Rasmussen’s visit was not the first official contact between NATO and Japan. Already in the early 1990s, the two sides started a strategic dialogue at the level of senior officials, which took place alternatively at NATO HQ in Brussels and in Japan. This dialogue became more structured over time and led to official visits by then NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in April 2005 and in December 2007. Prime Minister Abe visited Brussels in January 2007 and addressed the North Atlantic Council calling for closer cooperation. Japan’s Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto also met Rasmussen in Brussels in May 2011. For over three years, Japan has worked with NATO to organize a return visit of the Secretary General to Japan and for a political declaration on cooperation. Japan hoped NATO could offer political support in its recurring maritime disputes with China. Japanese scholars also have called for NATO to communicate “strategic ambiguity” toward China; namely, not to exclude the possibility that NATO might take sides with U.S. allies in a conflict against China in the Asia-Pacific region [2]. 

Over the last 20 years, Japan accumulated political capital with NATO through considerable funding of alliance operations in the Balkans and then in Afghanistan. Even after Japan suffered the three devastations—earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster—it continued the same level of funding to Afghanistan. Japan provided valued support for the ISAF and contributed to reconstruction and development efforts, even becoming the number one builder of roads. In July 2012, Japan organized an international donors’ conference for Afghanistan in Tokyo and pledged $5 billion of its own money over a five-year period. NATO had internal discussions on how to respond to Japan. Many European members of NATO had concerns about their own volatile neighborhood and did not want to spread NATO resources too thin or become involved in a region in which their own economic interests may be exposed. In addition, the creeping demilitarization of Europe has made it implausible that NATO would even be able to project power in the Asia-Pacific. Europeans are nervous that the U.S. rebalancing will earmark limited resources for Asia, forcing unwanted tradeoffs in Washington. 

NATO and China 

NATO developed relations with China later than with Japan. Contacts were totally absent during the Cold War and throughout most of the 1990s. In 1999, the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade gave rise to strong official protest and nationalistic demonstrations against NATO, which was perceived as a hostile force. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and NATO deployment in Afghanistan, however, China started to show interest toward the alliance. Afghanistan also was a security concern for China. In 2002, the Chinese Ambassador met for the first time with then-Secretary General Lord Robertson in Brussels. Several high-level meetings followed, including a visit of then NATO Deputy Secretary General Bisogniero to China in November 2009 (, November 10, 2009). NATO, however, has no structured strategic dialogue as in the case of Japan and, to date, no NATO Secretary General has visited China. 

NATO shares important security interests with China including the stability of Afghanistan and Central Asia as well as the fight against maritime piracy and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In particular, NATO considers China a key player on Afghanistan, even if Beijing has been slow to realize its own importance (“Shifts in Beijing’s Afghan Policy: A View from the Ground,” China Brief, November 5, 2012). China has given NATO political support as a member of the UN Security Council and also has increased its economic presence in the country through aid and investment. Total Chinese aid to Afghanistan is estimated at over $1 billion, but the real Chinese investment concerns resource extraction projects. For example, a $3.7 billion deal signed in November 2007 by a Chinese company to develop the Anyak copper mine south of Kabul was the largest single deal ever signed in the country (Xinhua, February 13, 2012). Afghanistan shares a border with China and is also of importance to China as a possible corridor for the transport of goods and for oil and gas pipelines from South and Western Asia. Furthermore, China offers some limited training to Afghan security forces. NATO has every interest in maintaining good relations and good cooperation with China. Any friction with China could jeopardize its operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. 

Although Chinese officials have approached NATO warily, they officially have expressed an interest to work with them on the basis of “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination” (China Daily, May 21, 2012). Indeed, academic interest in NATO is gaining traction in China; two new institutes dedicated to the study of NATO have been proposed one at Renmin University in Beijing and another in Shanghai [3].  China’s efforts to understand NATO and improve contacts with it were celebrated with the graduation in December 2012 of Rear Admiral Ji Li who participated in a NATO Defense College program in Rome.  

Values-Based Diplomacy? 

In his speech in Tokyo, Rasmussen emphasized the common values that both Japan and NATO share.  He stated “NATO and Japan are like-minded. We share the same values. We share the same security challenges. And we share the same desire to work together. So we can help the United Nations and the international community to reinforce the rules-based international system. And to build security and stability—both in our own regions, and beyond” (, April 22). 

Although they share common values, Rasmussen added, “But let me make one thing clear. The Alliance’s global perspective does not mean that NATO seeks a presence in the Asia-Pacific region. What it does mean, is that NATO seeks to work with the Asia-Pacific region. And Japan is a key partner for this endeavor.” During his trip, Rasmussen maintained a certain distance on issues between Japan and China. In the speech, Rasmussen did not mention China, which must have been a disappointment to Japanese policymakers. At the National Press Club, Rasmussen was asked about China, which seemed a fair enough question since there has been increased friction in the region which included a fire-lock on Japanese ships by Chinese military vessels. Rasmussen replied in what some observers have noted was a carefully prepared expression: “We do not consider China a direct threat to NATO Allies. We hope that China will use its increasing influence on the international scene in a peaceful way and in a constructive way to maintain international peace, security and stability.” Rasmussen carefully used appropriate words to refer to China and its international role. 

While in Tokyo, Rasmussen continued with a China pitch, “I would very much like to see a strengthened dialogue between NATO and China. NATO operates on the basis of United Nations mandates. And we have special relationships with four out of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Because three of them are allies: the [United States], UK and France. And with the fourth, Russia we have a special partnership rooted in the NATO-Russia Council. So we have a structured dialogue with four of five permanent members of the UN Security Council. But with the fifth, China, I would like to see a more structured dialogue. We have some dialogue. But it could be enhanced. And that could, I think, also contribute to preventing any misunderstandings.” Despite the fact that Japan shares the same Western democratic values of governance on which NATO is built, Rasmussen was careful not to send any signal that could be interpreted as a sign of support for Japan in a possible conflict with China. During the question-and-answer period, he said very clearly that “NATO has no intention to be present as an alliance in Asia.” 

Rasmussen thus dispelled any sign of a possible NATO “strategic ambiguity” or principled stand for which Japan might have wished. In Tokyo, Rasmussen also signed a joint statement that had been negotiated at length beforehand within NATO. In the joint statement, the words “ensuring freedom of navigation” are mentioned in a paragraph on principles of cooperation. This could be read as a reference to the East China Sea dispute between Japan and China. When it comes to the list of possible areas for further dialogue and cooperation in paragraph 10, however, “maritime security” is immediately qualified with the words “especially counter piracy.” In the same list, “disarmament” is qualified with “in particular related to small arms and light weapons.” It appears that the qualifications were added on the NATO side on France’s insistence. A Japanese official privately told this author “We don’t expect NATO to take concrete actions but do expect them to supply moral support and emphasize that issues in Asia need to be resolved by peaceful means. We hope NATO will encourage China to become more rules-based” [4]. 

The Limits of Global NATO 2013 

The 2010 NATO Lisbon Strategic Concept aimed at developing partnerships with countries and organizations across the globe (, November 19, 2010). As Rasmussen emphasized in the Q&A session that followed his speech, “NATO has no intention to be present as an alliance in Asia. But we would very much like to engage with nations in Asia.” He wished to, “see a more structured China-NATO dialogue. But obviously it would also be to the benefit of the security in Asia if a multilateral dialogue could take place among major players in this region.” He closed with, “I think actually that Asia needs more and stronger multilateral structures to deal with potential conflicts.” It is not clear, however, what concrete action NATO would take to persuade China and other players to pursue a multilateral approach to dispute resolution and to help bring about the desired dialogue in the region.


1.     Other partners include Republic of Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mongolia and Pakistan.

2.     Masako Ikegami, “NATO and Japan: Strengthening Asian Stability,” NATO Review, 2007, Available online

3.     Author’s interview with military analyst, Brussels, May 2013.

4.     Author’s interview with Japanese official, Brussels, April 2013.